What's it like to serve on a City Council?
November 21, 2012 5:29 AM   Subscribe

Are there any City Council members out there? What is it like to run for office and to serve as a councilperson in your town (bonus points if it's a city of 50-100K population)?

(Anonymous because I’d rather not have this linked to my comment/question history)

Other than a failed run for student council in high school I have never aspired to hold elected office. I am generally skeptical of politicians and am staunchly independent. I am very socially liberal in a very socially conservative town.

This week I saw that petitions are due for city council, and in my district the councilperson has decided not to seek reelection. Nobody so far has filed to take his spot. Since I saw that, something has been tugging at me to file. My town is a suburb of Chicago with 50,000 residents. All spots are nonpartisan so I wouldn't need to be affiliated with a party.

The current councilperson is a friend of a friend and I talked to him tonight. He said several times that it's a big time commitment, but that he enjoyed his time and thought it was a good way to serve his town. That's what is drawing me in - I like this community and think I would do a good job and could help make it a good place for people to live. The job is totally voluntary - there's no money or benefits involved.

Councilpersons of AskMe - what compelled you to run? What has been your experience of running and of serving? What surprised you, both good and bad? In the alternative to direct experience, are there any good resources out there for new politicians or writings about what the job is like?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
School Board here, in a city a little larger than that, downstate. I'm also good friends with several City Council and County Board members. It's all pretty similar.

You probably need to a pretty fast decision since you will have to file signatures to get on the ballot, which you'll have to gather fast. I thought gathering signatures was the most tedious and un-fun part of the process.

The local office campaign circuit is a lot of small meetings -- forums put on but the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, PTA meetings, neighborhood associations -- and going door-to-door. Though I am a reserved person who's made nervous by meeting new people, I had a lot of fun doing this, I think because I didn't have to engage in a lot of small talk and I was passionate about wanting to serve. I had a lot of FUN meeting new people.

Costs for a local race of that size down here run about $3,000 to $5,000, basically yard signs and mailers/walk literature. I ran my campaign with zero funds, printed my own walk literature, and did a lot more going to meetings and walking my feet off. You can gather donations. (A hotly-contested mayoral race can go to $20,000.) I was in a four-way race where I wasn't well-known, so you can definitely run on the cheap, especially if you're unopposed.

My race was also non-partisan but you get your walk lists from one of the county parties, which they generally provide to you to help build up the farm team. I found that non-partisan races weren't "secretly partisan," but that the county parties are pretty willing to help small local races to encourage voting and encourage involvement, because candidates for higher partisan offices mostly come up through local government. (You also don't have to pretend not to be a liberal; it was pretty clear that I was a liberal even though it's a non-partisan race. People who care enough to vote in local elections generally understand that the work is more about closely watching budgets than about making overarching laws where ideology matters.) Walk lists let you target people who actually vote in spring municipal elections. It's also extremely helpful to work with a party functionary who can help you with strategies for campaigning at the local level ("nobody goes to this thing, everybody goes to that thing") and help you understand some of the specifics of things like filing your financials if you get any donations. Generally everybody at the board of elections was very helpful and most of the material is pretty clear, but it's also helpful to have someone whose done it before say, "Oh, yeah, do this, do that."

It is a big time commitment. I'd say I spend 20 hours a week in an average week, but most of that is reading reams of information, doing e-mail, and taking and returning phone calls. I'm only in meetings maybe 6 hours a week. So most of the 20 hours can be done from the comfort of my couch. But it's not something I ever really feel like procrastinating, because I find the work interesting and important. You do need a tolerance for bad powerpoint presentations and badly-run meetings, and for reading detailed financial data. We also do a lot of HR, which I really enjoy, but I hadn't realized quite how much of the work we did would be HR. I don't know how long your terms are, but the general advice is it takes a year of sitting and listening and figuring things out before you start being effective.

Sometimes it is frustrating and upsetting and sometimes people yell at you and probably there are gadflies who come to every meeting and yell at you about the same things every week and probably these are not things the city council has any power to fix. But overall it's been really rewarding for me. You work primarily with other people who feel strongly about your community and who care enough to volunteer a lot of unpaid time to serve it, and that vision of community becomes normative to you -- it's hard for me to imagine now that there are people who wouldn't volunteer 10 or 20 hours a week to do the work of governing the town! I like being around people who care that much about our community. It makes me feel good about democracy and it makes me feel a lot more ownership of my community and country because it really is me and my friends and neighbors who are running things, not some strange group of "them" that I have no connection to.

I had never run for anything before either (not even student government) and I'm not a terribly outgoing person. But it turned out to be easy and fun to talk to people about things I was passionate about.

I think you should do it, because it IS fun and it's a valuable way to serve your community. You can memail me if you have more questions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:58 AM on November 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

I've had several friends who were local elected officials, including city council. It's a lot of time. You will get invited to meetings of people you've never heard of before and whom you never dreamed existed. I'd be uncomfortable doing it with absolutely no pay unless you're pretty well off, as you will have expenses and will be asked to donate to everything under the sun.

Eyebrows McGee is exactly right - you will have people carping at you about everything from Barack Obama to the next suburb over in Chicagoland.

I've always thought it would be rewarding to try it if I got to where my job was very non-demanding or if I was retired. A good person in that kind of position CAN make a difference in getting things done in your community, and one does achieve a certain type of notoriety and meet a lot of nice people. However, if you are at all insecure in your own skin or time-stressed, I think it could become a nightmare.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:46 AM on November 21, 2012

I served for 3 years on an appointed committee that made advisory suggestions to the city council here in my little town (population circa 60k). I have immense respect for the people who serve on the city council, no matter what their political bent. I now listen to the podcasts of the city council meetings, and think about ways that I can work with and around them to improve where I live.

Everything Eyebrows McGee mentioned rings solidly true. The same people will show up month after month to speak at the public comment session, making the same generically "this might be a good idea" calls for action without ever educating themselves about the factors which have driven those decisions in the past.

And I now solidly believe that the primary purpose of proclamations and recognition of various volunteer groups is to discourage civic involvement: Figuring out where to fast forward to is a royal PITA.

So, yes, a lot of reading. You'll probably have to file financial disclosure reports and keep track of gifts and such to make sure you're squeaky clean on ethics rules. Here in California you can't have a private meeting that discusses official business with more than a quorum of the body you're on, and meetings can be serial, which means you may have fewer conversations about local politics, and you'll probably have to abstain from talking about local politics on online forums. Or at least be really careful.

If you're going to do this for more than one term you're going to have to get a fundraising network going, which kind of flies in the face of randomkeystrike's comment about being asked to donate a lot. I haven't seen that, I have seen a lot of the other way around. And this last race we tossed a few bucks towards a couple of different candidates, and one of them gave me the super hard push to show up for her fundraiser with our local congresswoman. I was kind of "well, we only gave you a hundred bucks, I don't want to take away a seat from a real donor", but it turns out that they were trying to pad the room: It was me and like six or seven other people.

(Another candidate, on the more conservative end of the spectrum, had a packed fundraiser in the off-year that I got dragged to, but I don't know what his actual draw was.)

If nobody else has filed, that'll keep your election costs down, at least for this election, and mean you don't have to spend more than every weekend out walking, knocking on doors and shaking hands.

And we really need more people involved in local politics. For the most part the city will run, you'll get staff reports on the decisions you need to make, augment them with your own research, add that input at the council meetings, and the bureaucracy will march on and continue to function. What we need is more people not only making the subtle adjustments, but talking to their neighbors about that.

Even if you run and lose, you will have made a tremendous contribution to your community and I totally respect that effort on your part. Thank you for considering this involvement!
posted by straw at 11:12 AM on November 21, 2012

Regarding money and time demands:

Probably about half of the people serving in unpaid local office around here are retired. There are only a very small handful of elected representatives in my county with children under the age of ten (three of us, I think). Most people under 40 in elected office are unpartnered or don't have kids. That said, I feel like serving is MORE important because I have kids and am that much more invested in the community, and the time away from home is not that many hours. I generally do a lot of my reading and e-mails either after my kids have gone to bed, or when they're playing independently and I'm just supervising and would be reading a book anyway. I used to do a lot of it while breastfeeding. It's nice to take it out in the backyard and read while they run around. Basically the things that have lost out, for me, are for-fun reading, TV-watching, and embroidery as a hobby. One of my colleagues on the school board is about 39, with children ages 3 and 1, who works a demanding job as a litigator. He doesn't get as much time with his kids as he'd like, but it's very manageable.

For money, most people in elected office around here are not "wealthy." (Most are financially stable, but a few are not even that.) You do get invited to a lot of charity events, but those are totally pro-forma invitations because they send invites to every elected official in the county. You can totally disregard them and nobody cares. (I go to ones that are either semi-relevant to education -- library branch grand openings, PBS beg-week call-bank -- or that sound actually fun, like drinking at the zoo.) I have found that political people are actually pretty careful about leveraging their networks with other politicians; I only get invited to a handful of political fundraisers and basically always for people who already know I support them. So I wouldn't worry too much about political expenses unless your councilman friend says the local culture is really bad that way.

Most of our expenses are covered by the school board even though we aren't paid: training, regional association meetings, even mileage to those sorts of things. Food at meetings. Stationery, business cards. Generally the ethic around here is to pay for your own low-cost incidentals (I'm doing a $30 training next week and won't bother to submit the receipt), but you could submit many of those things for reimbursement.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:47 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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